~”I know you’re busy studying for finals right now, but when all of that is over, we should do dinner. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”~
Darnell had received that email nearly a week ago, now, along with details of a time and place for dinner, but no matter how he pried, he couldn’t get any more information out of Miguel than that, and it had been slowly driving him up the wall. For, knowing Miguel as he did, that email could have meant anything. The last time he’d wanted Darnell to meet someone, it had been Tania Schmidt, his newest foster sister. He could have reconnected with someone from an old foster home. He could have found a missing cousin. He could be engaged. He could have a child. And, in typical Miguel fashion, it clearly hadn’t occurred to him that Darnell might have wanted that sort of detail in order to best prepare. But, no. No details for him. So, he’d been forced to sort out what to wear and prep a few topics of conversation beforehand with absolutely no guide. And now here he was at the restaurant, sure he was overdressed and feeling woefully underprepared.
Making his way to the bar, Darnell boosted himself up on one of the stools and began perusing the drink menu. He didn’t want anything hard; just a little something to take the edge off. Finally settling on a hard cider, he turned around so he could watch the main door. Miguel was usually punctual to a fault, but a ridiculous spate of nerves over this meeting had gotten Darnell here much sooner than the agreed upon time. Even if Miguel was early, he’d be waiting for a while.
It was understandable, though, wasn’t it? After all, the last time Miguel had contacted him with something like this, it hadn’t ended all that well. Thanks to an intolerant and racist foster mother, he’d lost contact with Miguel for months after that meeting. And when they’d seen each other next, Darnell had been minus a limb and plus a whole host of new nightmares.
Darnell looked down at his feet. It was cold enough for pants, now, and, if he wore socks and shoes and was careful how he sat, then no one who didn’t already know would even notice. He sighed, reached down a hand to rub at the spot where his leg met the prosthetic. It ached sometimes, especially in colder weather, and was a constant reminder that the world was far from perfect. Sometimes that hurt worse than the physical ache.
Darnell knocked back the rest of his cider and twisted to get a look at the clock above the bar. Fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes until the agreed upon meeting time. This was ridiculous. If he had to sit here with no one to talk to for fifteen minutes, he’d end up drinking way too much and flirting with the first person he saw. Which, to be fair, had worked out well for him in the past, but still. The fact that it had worked out well was precisely the reason why it was a bad idea now. He had someone at home who would be strongly displeased with him for using this time for flirting. Then again… she wouldn’t kill him if she was the one he was flirting with, would she? Smiling, Darnell pulled out his phone and sent a simple text:
~What are you up to, beautiful?~
The answer was short and to the point, but arrived quickly enough that it took the sting out of the answer: ~Up to my elbows in things that would put you right off your fancy dinner if I list them.~
Darnell smiled. The hazard of close friendships between medical students. He wrote back: ~And you’re using your phone while up to your elbows in gross things? Nice try.~
There was a pause before his phone dinged again, nearly a full minute, but the kiss-blowing emoji more than made up for the wait. ~Can’t blame a girl for trying, can you? Just think. If you’d taken me with you, you wouldn’t be sitting there all alone, bored out of your gourd.~
~Right. And introduced you as what? My senior buddy/best friend/occasional bedmate/not-precisely-girlfriend/quasi-life partner? I thought we agreed to save all the complications for once I knew who it was Miguel deemed important enough to want me to meet.~
~Uh-huh. I’ve been thinking about that. Forget this person he wants YOU to meet. Why haven’t you wanted ME to meet HIM? I mean, not-precisely-boyfriend status aside, you’ve met my whole family. Isn’t it past time I met yours?~
And there was the problem. She was right. Miguel was the only good thing Darnell had taken away from the foster system and he was also the only family Darnell cared to claim. Darnell should have introduced him to her months ago, as soon as he realized that official status or not, she was the most important person in his life, right now. But somehow, time had slipped away from him. She was busy. He was busy. Miguel was busy. It was always something. And now nearly a year had gone by and it was starting to feel like he was keeping his relationship a secret and that wasn’t the case at all. He wanted them to meet; he had a feeling they’d get along famously when they did. They had the same voracious appetite for learning, for books. They had the same intensity of focus and ambition to make the world a better place for the people they loved. So, no, Darnell didn’t think that they’d have any difficulty finding common ground or liking each other. No. What Darnell worried about was that Miguel wouldn’t understand their relationship. He had certain prejudices about relationships, thanks to his experiences in the foster system. In short, they should be perfect, and if they weren’t, then one shouldn’t bother at all. And Darnell’s did not measure up to romantic perfection by any stretch. It couldn’t; not when both parties involved were busy medical students and had ambitions. Darnell often got put second. And he was all right with that, but he wasn’t sure Miguel would be. That’s why he was here alone. He wrote back:
~You’re absolutely right. But you know it’s more complicated than that.~
The response to that was even more to the point: ~That’s bullshit.~
Darnell sighed and waved the bartender over to order another cider. ~Yeah. I know.~
There was no response to that text, nor did Darnell really expect one. She was right and she knew it, and he was wrong and he knew it, but neither of them would budge about this anymore. As much as they cared for and supported each other, as noted, their relationship wasn’t without issues. When Darnell was good and ready to apologize, he’d get down on his knees to beg forgiveness. And then they’d have angry, quasi-make up sex and end up tabling the argument until next time.
“Well, if that isn’t the longest face I’ve ever seen you wear…”
Darnell jumped, all but fell off his barstool at the hand that descended to clap him on the shoulder amidst that introduction. He turned just in time to catch the soft smile that Miguel slid his way as he offered him a hand. Darnell took it and slid off the stool, pulling Miguel to him in a tight hug. Arguments with quasi-not-precisely-girlfriends aside, it was still important to him to make a good impression. Miguel was his only real family. Darnell didn’t want to disappoint him. Miguel gave back as good as he was getting in that hug, a firmness and surety in his grip that had never been there before. When they released each other, Darnell took a step back, hands still loosely gripping Miguel’s shoulders, to look him up and down, and he couldn’t help but smile at what he saw.
Miguel looked good. He looked really good. There was a looseness in his whole body—a relaxation of muscles long held too tightly—that had never been there before. The bags under his eyes were still there, but they weren’t as deeply set as they’d been the last time Darnell had seen him. He’d picked up a laugh line or two around his mouth. He looked happy. Darnell pulled him into another hug, whispered into his ear, “You look good, kid. Real good.”
This time, when they pulled apart, it was Miguel who stepped back, turning to gesture at the man standing just behind them. He looked like he was about Miguel’s age. He had dark, curly hair, an olive complexion that hinted at some kind of Mediterranean ancestry, a ready smile, and bright green eyes. And the way he swept those eyes up one side of Darnell and down the other before latching them directly onto his and turning the full force of that smile on him let Darnell know that this man didn’t miss much… and he probably got everything he wanted from anyone he wanted it from on the strength of that smile alone. Darnell recognized the type. Then again… that was because he was that type, too.
Letting an answering grin stretch across his own face, Darnell held out a hand. “I hope you realize what a momentous occasion this is. You’re only the second of his friends that Miguel’s ever wanted to introduce me to. Still not sure if that says more about his friends or about me, but there it is.”
“Considering our friends, I’d say it says more about us than it does you.”
Accompanied by a laugh as rich as that smile was full, that one sentence let Darnell know that whoever this man was, he was the type of man who was happy to let a joke be turned on himself. In fact, Darnell thought, he was probably happier that way. After all, If the joke was on him, it wasn’t on anyone else. Darnell let out a soft laugh and slung an arm around Miguel’s neck, then reached over and ruffled his hair. “So, you planning on actually introducing us, or do we have to handle that on our own?”
Five minutes later, names had been exchanged, they were sitting at a table perusing the menu, and Darnell had finally figured out exactly who Courfeyrac was, and it explained Miguel’s earlier hesitance to share details. Miguel had found himself a boyfriend—and one who was enough like Darnell that it was hard to miss. Well, they did say that women ended up marrying men ust like their fathers and men married women just like their mothers. So, in the absence of parents, Darnell supposed it made sense to find people to marry who were just like your siblings, instead… and he was the closest thing Miguel had to that.
Once they’d placed their orders, Darnell leaned forwards and offered up his gentlest smile. His and Miguel’s home environments hadn’t been the most accepting for anyone. He wanted Miguel to know that he was not just OK with him dating another man, but that he was happy for him, as well. Including Courfeyrac in that smile, Darnell lifted his eyebrows up and down and asked, “So, how long have you two been dating?”
Darnell was expecting Miguel to blush and to do a little stammering. He was not expecting the absolutely stricken look, nor for Miguel to deny it outright.
“We’re not dating.”
“We’re. Not. Dating.”
Darnell’s eyebrows flew upwards, but before he could even get his mouth around an apology for an offense he’d absolutely not intended to give, Courfeyrac put a hand on Miguel’s shoulder and shook his head. When he spoke, he sounded… tired. And no small amount exasperated. He said, “Feuilly, it’s OK. It’s a natural assumption, and I’m sure that Darnell didn’t mean anything mean by it. In fact, I’m pretty sure he meant exactly the opposite.” Turning those bright green eyes back in Darnell’s direction, he added, “Right?”
Darnell nodded. “Right. Miguel, I hope you know me well enough to know that you don’t have to hide or be ashamed of your sexual preferences around me, but since you seem to need it explicitly stated… I have no problem with you being gay.” He reached out a hand to cover Miguel’s tightly clenched fist. “As long as you’re happy, that’s all I care about.” He paused, then smiled. “Well, and that you’re practicing safe sex, but that’s the doctor in me talking.”
Having meant that comment to be reassuring and to lighten the mood, Darnell was not expecting for Miguel to pull his hand away and cross his arms over his chest. His jaw worked as his eyebrows furrowed, and Darnell silently cursed the fact that it seemed to be opposite day. Normally he was good at this. He was good at reading people, especially Miguel, and he was charming as hell when he had to be. So, how on earth was this all going so wrong?
Again, it was Courfeyrac who came to the rescue. He slid an arm around Miguel’s waist and leaned in to whisper in his ear. Darnell forced himself to and wait as quietly as he could, but he was growing ever more confused by the minute. Every nuance of their body language practically screamed that Miguel and Courfeyrac were in a relationship. Finally, Courfeyrac leaned back and the soft smile on his face had Miguel’s cheeks flushing, but he had at least relaxed.
Darnell watched them for another minute, taking note of the way that Miguel leaned into Courfeyrac’s side, the way they were canted towards each other, knees no doubt touching beneath the table, and the way Courfeyrac’s arm was wrapped loosely, yet supportively around Miguel’s waist, his hand so casually resting on Miguel’s hip. It didn’t hurt. Being shut out of something that Miguel clearly thought important enough to get angry over. Darnell wouldn’t let it. But he did want an answer. Finally he huffed out, “If you’re trying to convince me you’re not in a relationship of some sort, you’re going to have to try a lot harder than this.”
Courfeyrac retrieved his arm from around Miguel and clasped his hands together on the table. Quietly, he said, “It’s nothing personal, Darnell. He’s just trying to protect me. Our friends are more tolerant than most and even most of them don’t quite understand what we are to each other.” He snorted out a soft laugh. “Then again, since we don’t precisely understand what we are to each other, either, I suppose it’s an unfair expectation that they would.” Courfeyrac raised his head to meet Darnell’s gaze head on, no more hesitation. “I’m asexual and aromantic. I don’t do relationships, not the way most people do, but… I love Feuilly. And he loves me. And that means something, even if neither us is really quite sure what, yet.” He shrugged. “And he talks enough about you that I really wanted to meet you, and maybe we should have waited until we figured ourselves out before I did, but I was afraid that if we waited until then, you might be bringing your grandkids along with you to the meeting… and I’m just not that patient.” There was another smile then, just as self-deprecating as the first—Courfeyrac turning the joke and blame on himself, just as before.
Darnell took a minute to think, picking up his drink, taking a sip, then putting it back down to get that time. Miguel was in love with Courfeyrac. It was written all over his face. The “forever after,” “‘till death do us part,” “paint me like one of your French girls” kind of love. But Courfeyrac didn’t return that love in kind. He loved Miguel, sure, but what did that mean? Loved him like a friend? Like a brother? How was that fair? It sounded like Miguel was being used; was being taken advantage of. And Darnell wasn’t sure he was comfortable with that. But… there was something about that body language still. Something about the look in Courfeyrac’s eyes. That ‘something’ told Darnell that Courfeyrac wasn’t capable of that kind of usury. And it had probably been Miguel who’d pushed whatever this had been into this quasi-relationship. Darnell didn’t have to know Courfeyrac to know that. He knew Miguel, and that was enough. He didn’t do nebulous and uncertain all that well. It came of having been raised in a life when you were never certain of who really loved you, who really wanted to claim you as family—and not just for the state stipend. Miguel would have pushed for as much definition as he thought he could get. And if this was the best that had come of that pushing, then this was the best there was.
The food arrived, then, sparing Darnell the need to answer right away, but he couldn’t help but notice that neither Miguel nor Courfeyrac was touching their food and that Miguel, in particular, looked a little green around the gills. He sighed. “I’ll be completely honest, Miguel… I’m not sure what to say.” He put his fork back down and lifted his gaze to Miguel’s, stomach clenching at the fear he could too easily see in his eyes. Finally, he said simply, “Are you happy?”
Miguel reached out to take Courfeyrac’s hand in his, entwining their fingers together. He then looked back up at Darnell and slowly nodded.
Again, Darnell couldn’t help but notice that their body language spoke volumes: the way Miguel was sitting, one shoulder slightly in front of Courfeyrac, leaning into him for support but shielding him at the same time; the way their hands clenched so tightly on one another that Darnell’s ached in sympathy… the fierce look in Courfeyrac’s eyes that all but dared Darnell to say the wrong thing and promised vicious retaliation if he did. And that was really all he needed to know. Who was he to dictate what a relationship should look like after all? His was certainly far from typical. He had absolutely no room to talk here. A statement about glass houses and stones could apply.
The corner of Darnell’s mouth began to twitch, and he shook his head at the telltale sign that he was fighting a smile. Who was he to judge, indeed? Darnell stopped fighting the smile, let it spread wide and happy across his face, as he met Miguel’s and Courfeyrac’s eyes in turn. “Well. If you’re happy, then that’s all I really need to know.” He reached out a hand towards Courfeyrac, his smile widening when Courfeyrac took it and shook it firmly, no sign of hesitation. “Best friend, soul mate, quasi-life partner or whatever you eventually decide to call yourself… It’s a pleasure to meet you, Courfeyrac. I wish you both happy.”
Before either Courfeyrac or Miguel could respond, a commotion at the door drew everyone’s attention. There was a woman standing there speaking to the maître d'. She had brown eyes and skin so dark that the pure white of her wool coat was a striking contrast. Her hair was drawn into tight braids and twisted into a large bun that sat on the crown of her head. She had drawn the eyes of everyone in the restaurant, because, though she wasn’t loud, her voice had power and it projected, easily cutting through the chatter as she spoke to the maître d'.
“Darnell Joly or Miguel Feuilly. The reservation has to be under one of those names and, for the third time, no, they aren’t expecting me, but I assure you they’ll be happy to have me join them if you just go ask.” She smiled, showing all of her teeth in the process as she added, “I’ll wait.”
Miguel’s eyes were wide now, with confusion or fear, Darnell didn’t dare hazard a guess, but Courfeyrac’s lips were twitching. Darnell frowned. “Something about this amuses you?”
Courfeyrac at least had the decency to hide his blossoming grin behind the action of lifting his napkin to wipe his mouth. When he put the napkin back down, all traces of the grin were gone and in its place was a wince of sympathy. “Nothing at all, Darnell. But am I correct in guessing that the reason for your earlier long face just walked in the door to hunt you down?”
By that point the maître d’ had arrived at their table, but before he could speak, Darnell stood to pull out the chair beside his, waving him away with a small shake of the head. “’Chetta. So glad you could join us. I didn’t think you were going to make it.”
There was a moment when their eyes met, Musichetta’s dark and flashing and Darnell’s wide and pleading. If she wanted a scene, she’d have a scene, but that wasn’t the kind of impression Darnell wanted to leave behind them, because the truth was… deep down, he wanted Miguel’s approval of his own relationship just as much as Miguel had wanted his. This wouldn’t have been his chosen way to affect an introduction, but since it was here whether he wanted it or not, he was going to grab it with both hands.
There was an almost imperceptible softening of the frown lines around Musichetta’s eyes. Darnell breathed out a quiet sigh of relief as her hand alighted in his for the briefest of moments before she slid smoothly into the seat he’d held out for her and then extended that same hand to Miguel. “You must be Miguel. My name is Musichetta. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” With a bright smile for Miguel and a sharp kick under the table for Darnell, she added, “This one talks about you all the time, and I was beginning to despair that we’d ever have a chance to meet in person.”
Miguel’s cheeks had flushed and he was darting glances in Courfeyrac’s direction as though looking for help. Fortunately, Courfeyrac didn’t seem to need anyone’s help in picking up that clue… nor the one delivered by the desperate pleading in Darnell’s eyes.
“Musichetta, it’s a pleasure to meet you, as well. I’m so glad that you could make it in the end.” Courfeyrac reached out to shake Musichetta’s hand, then lifted his other to signal the waiter. “As you can see, we’ve already received our orders, but we’d be happy to wait on eating while you place yours.” Smiling broadly, he added, “I’m sure we can find plenty of topics of conversation with which to occupy ourselves while we wait.” He nodded towards the lapel of Musichetta’s coat. “For example, I see that you and Feuilly have matching pins. You also participate in the library’s literacy for teens program?”
And it was really as easy as that. Musichetta’s eyes lit up with that inner fire Darnell loved so much, and she launched into a tale of her most recent hours in the program, her excitement catching. Darnell had no idea how she found time for such things like teaching teenagers to read, but he loved her all the more for that, too. Losing all trace of the awkwardness he’d displayed just moments before, Miguel answered back with a few stories of his own and before Darnell knew it, they were deeply engrossed in a discussion of their favorite books and their techniques for engaging reluctant teens and adolescents in reading.
Darnell turned to Courfeyrac and raised an eyebrow. “I get the distinct feeling that you and I have just become superfluous to this conversation.”
Courfeyrac laughed along with Darnell at that, but the look he shot Miguel out of the corner of his eye was so fond, so proud, so loving, that it almost made Darnell embarrassed to have caught it. Courfeyrac might not have a desire for any kind of romantic relationship, but it was becoming more and more obvious as the evening went on that he felt very deeply for Miguel just the same. And that was enough. It was everything.
By the time they reached the dessert course—Courfeyrac and Feuilly sharing a tremendous slice of apple pie a la mode, Darnell having the sorbet, and Musichetta managing a caramel fudge brownie a la mode all on her own with a threatening look for Darnell every time he tried to steal a bite—Darnell felt as though they’d all known each other for ages. The conversation was free and engrossing, both Courfeyrac and Miguel keeping up and holding their own even when Musichetta ran off on a conversational gambit that even Darnell would have thought esoteric, and it was… it was nice.
Darnell hadn’t had many friends growing up. He’d moved too often, like most kids in the foster system. Miguel was the only friend he’d managed to keep, and he’d fought tooth and nail to do it, having considering Miguel more of a brother than a friend. In college he’d gotten better at making friends, but long hours working and studying took their toll and he’d lost many of them, as well. And medical school was proving to be even worse. There was Musichetta, and there was a second year student he ran into and spoke with in the library whose name he didn’t even know, and that was really it. But this… for the first time, Darnell had an inkling of what it must be like to have a group of friends. He liked it.
When it was finally time to go—and they’d lingered long enough towards closing that the maître d’ was beginning to shoot them pointed looks—Darnell found himself reluctant to let the evening end without trying to hold onto that feeling. Having had a taste of this, he didn’t want to let it go. He didn’t want to go back to only seeing Miguel for that week they went away together every summer. It wasn’t enough. And from the way that Miguel was hovering at his side, shooting him glances he well recognized from the years when the foster system had kept them apart, he felt much the same. But Darnell still wasn’t quite sure what to do about it.
…until Courfeyrac jumped right into the middle of that giant pile of awkward with another brilliant smile and a suggestion that they do this again soon and a further suggestion that both Darnell and Musichetta come meet the rest of their friends at their weekly social justice group meeting. Before Darnell even had a chance to register what was being offered, Musichetta was already vigorously agreeing.
Darnell all but squeaked. “You… how on Earth are you going to find time to take on another cause? You barely sleep as it is!”
“Are you saying you don’t want to?” Musichetta was scowling now, a look in her eyes that spelled trouble every time Darnell saw it there. “Haven’t you been listening to what Miguel’s been saying about what they do? It’s important! Besides,” she smiled. “It’ll give us an excuse to see them more often, and you, my dearest Darnellll, could use to get out more often. If you don’t learn to balance medical school with a life, soon, you’ll work yourself into a nervous breakdown before you even hit clinics!”
Miguel raised an eyebrow. “Darnellll?”
Darnell felt his cheeks heating and waved at Musichetta to explain. It was so silly, really and-- and Musichetta was already explaining.
“I have a friend at my poetry group—“
“You’re in a poetry group, too? I think I’m beginning to see what Darnell was talking about—when do you sleep?”
Musichetta turned her scowl on Courfeyrac and said, “Do you want to hear this story or not?” When Courfeyrac held up his hands in surrender, she smiled. “Good. Anyway, he’s French and he’s got a pun for everything. When I put Darnell on the guest list for one of our readings, he saw it and made a comment about how with one more L added to the ones in his first and last names, he might get enough lift to fly away on the four of them. Turns out ‘aile’ means ‘wing’ in French.” Musichetta turned towards Darnell and lifted a hand to stroke Darnell’s cheek, her smile softening into something much fonder and even more happy. “And since this little angel of mine has saved my sanity on more than one occasion by swooping in and being there for me when I need him… I let the joke stick.”
Courfeyrac and Miguel let them have their moment, then quietly suggested that they move it outside so the restaurant could close up. By the time they’d reached the cars—the only two left in the lot—Darnell had agreed to come with Musichetta to the meeting. You had to make time for the important things in life, and since Miguel and Musichetta were the two most important people in his life, the decision really was that easy.
After Musichetta had left and Courfeyrac retreated to his car to start it warming up, Darnell pulled Miguel to him in a tight hug and whispered fiercely into his ear, “I have missed you, kid. And we’re both idiots that we didn’t figure out we could do this more often years ago.” After one more tight squeeze, Darnell loosened his grip enough to lean back so Miguel could see the huge smile he was sporting. “I’m so glad you called. I’m glad you had reason to call. I’m glad you found someone who makes you happy. Really, Miguel. I am. And if the rest of your friends are even half as nice, I’m sure I’ll love them, too.”
Miguel ducked his head, his cheeks flushed a brilliant pink, but underneath that blush, Darnell could see a smile just as wide as his own. When he finally looked up again, he said, “No more being strangers. We’re family. It’s more than time we got a chance to act like it.”
Darnell was starting to think if he smiled any wider, he was going to need to ice his sore cheek muscles when he got home. Reaching out, he ruffled Miguel’s hair. “You got that right, little brother. You got that right.” As he pulled Miguel in for one last hug, Darnell said, “Now you take that man of yours home and do something nice for him for arranging all this, OK?” At Miguel’s raised eyebrow and slow smirk, Darnell’s eyes widened and he shook his head frantically. “I didn’t mean it like that! I mean, uh… make him tea or something? I don’t know. Whatever you do when you want to do something nice for him that absolutely is not sexual in any way??” How did real big brothers even talk to their kid brothers about sex, anyway? Jesus fucking H. Christ, just the thought. Darnell shuddered.
Miguel started laughing and couldn’t stop. Eventually he wheezed out, “Oh my G-d, Darnell, your face!” Another few minutes passed with Miguel filling the silence of the parking lot with that breathless laughter before he finally got it under control. Wiping tears from his eyes, he said, “I’ve never seen you look so mortified in my entire life! You’re damned lucky my relationship doesn’t involve sex. I think you’d have spontaneously combusted if you’d had to give me that talk!”
Miguel leaned in to bump Darnell’s shoulder and Darnell just laughed along with him. And, a few minutes—and rounds of teasing—later, as he watched Miguel and Courfeyrac drive away… he marveled. If you’d asked him ten years ago if he’d ever see Miguel laugh like that—free and joyous and so purely happy—he’d have said no. Neither of them had had much to laugh about then. But, now…? For the first time, Darnell thought things just might work out for him, after all. And if Miguel was going to be OK… maybe it was time Darnell took a stab at it, too. He left the restaurant that night with a full stomach, a full calendar, and a full heart… and, for the first time in a long time, feeling like Musichetta’s joke just might be right… and he could fly.